Revitalizing Millet Consumption: Shifting Focus from ‘Big Food’ to Government Schemes and Local Outlets

Shifting away from dependence on the ‘Big Food’ industry to boost millet production and consumption, policies should emphasize integrating millets into government food schemes. Highlighting the limitations of Production Linked Incentives in realizing millets’ nutritional value, the suggestion is to encourage street food vendors and small-scale outlets to offer millet-based meals, particularly in rural markets.

                                                                                                                  Reshma Roshania

                                                                                          NCAER   ( 

India is leading a compelling initiative to encourage the consumption of millets. By successfully advocating for the designation of 2023 as the International Year of Millets at the United Nations, India has established itself as the worldwide hub for the production, research, and innovation of these healthful grains.

Millets hold significant promise in addressing India’s concurrent nutritional challenges, including prevalent ‘hidden hunger’ and elevated cardio-metabolic diseases. Nevertheless, the current approaches to reintegrate millets as a staple in mainstream diets may be off course and face the risk of failure unless more careful and imaginative strategies are implemented promptly.

Misplaced focus in mainstreaming millets

The Ministry of Food Processing Industries’ Production Linked Incentive Scheme for Millet-Based goods (PLIS-MBP) is encouraging the “Big Food” industry to introduce millet-based goods through sales-based incentives in an effort to promote the consumption of millets. The program’s objective is to encourage the production of millet-based goods that are ready to eat and cook.

Food industry giants like Kellogg, Nestle India, Britannia, and Hindustan Unilever have joined on board and are creating a variety of packaged cookies, instant noodles, breakfast cereals, powdered drinks and savoury snacks that fall under the ultra-processed food category. Ultra-processed foods are made up of components that are extracted from whole foods using industrial processing techniques. To make the product more palatable and extend its shelf life, flavour enhancers, artificial colouring, stabilisers, and preservatives are typically added along with sugar, salt, and fat.

To encourage their use, ultra-processing millets is not the answer, though. It will actually be detrimental. There is little doubt about the findings: eating a diet high in processed foods raises the risk of obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, and early death (Pagliai et al. 2020). These dishes are becoming more and more well-liked in India across all socioeconomic classes, in both rural and urban settings. According to one research of teenagers in Delhi, ultra-processed meals can account for as much as 20% of a teen’s daily caloric consumption (Jain and Mathur 2020).

Furthermore, a lot of money is being invested in start-ups that are creating millet-based products. The Indian Institute of Millets Research’s Nutrihub incubator, in contrast to sales-based incentives, provides seed cash, training, mentorship, access to investor networks, and use of R&D facilities to “nutri-cereal” entrepreneurs during the idea and prototype stages. Numerous of these start-ups produce goods devoid of additives and artificial substances under the moniker “clean food.” Nevertheless, their prices are likewise exorbitant. It’s obvious that the formerly “poor man’s food” is now being promoted to the urban elite.

There is a difference between the so-called “People’s Movement,” which conjures up images of a fight for food sovereignty to give farmers more power and bring back the traditional millet, and the actual direction that this movement may take—that is, into the hands of Big Food and onto the tables of the wealthy.

A significant push from the Centre to integrate millets into the National Food Security Act’s pillars is absent from the plan. Although millets are frequently heralded as the “key” to resolving India’s food insecurity, particularly in light of the country’s unpredictable environment, they are by no means an essential part of the nation’s programmes for ensuring food security.

Making millets accessible for all

The strength of street food, which forms the foundation of Indian cuisine, must be acknowledged in the campaign for millets. Farmers are being pushed to grow more millet, while Big Food and start-ups are being encouraged to produce packaged items made from millet. The middle group, which consists of street vendors and small-scale food establishments, is severely lacking in representation. This group sources materials for producing fresh and minimally processed cuisine.

These entrepreneurs are able to provide millets to the general public in a more healthful manner. Think of dishes like bajra ladoos, ragi tikki chaat, and puffed jowar bhel. Is it possible for current incentive programmes to incorporate inventive suppliers and imaginative dhaba chefs in order to encourage reasonably priced and easily available millet-based products? The original ready-to-eat food was, after all, street food—minus the packaging and intellectual property.

It’s also critical to recognise and accommodate rural preferences. Since India is still 65% rural, millets must be both easily accessible and desired by the rural populace in order to genuinely become the staple meal they once were. Nonetheless, the majority of research on people’s knowledge, beliefs, and practises related to millets comes from urban India.

For example, a recent multi-city study discovered that the main justification for eating millets was the presence of a pre-existing medical condition, like diabetes (Kane-Potaka et al. 2021). Since non-communicable diseases are underdiagnosed in rural areas, such findings from the urban setting might not be very applicable there. Furthermore, millets are important in many rural areas since they are used as animal feed; therefore, before initiating awareness campaigns and “millet mahotsavs,” preferences should be investigated and understood in order to customise messaging.

Currently, PLIS-MBP criteria state that goods based on millet must include at least 15% millet in order for public money to be supported. This suggests that substances like sugar, hydrogenated fats, processed white flour, and additives could make up the other 85%. In spite of this, people are probably going to be sold these products as health foods. Examples of possibly mislabelled superfoods are products like Quinoa Puffs promoted as a diet snack or Oats Instant Noodles labelled as “nutrilicious”. Controlling Big Food labelling and advertising is essential to keeping millets from turning into a nutritional catastrophe.

It’s important to remember that rice and wheat became staples on our plates not because of massive marketing campaigns, celebrity endorsements, or international campaigns, but because of structural policies that guaranteed farmers’ profits and consumer affordability. Similar factors should direct millets’ path into general consumption in order to avoid potential problems in their marketing and promotion.

Further Reading

Jain, A and P Mathur (2020), “Intake of Ultra-processed Foods Among Adolescents from Low- and Middle-Income Families in Delhi”, Indian Pediatrics, 57(8):712-714.

Kane-Potaka, Joanna, et al. (2021), “Assessing Millets and Sorghum Consumption Behavior in Urban India: A Large-Scale Survey”, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 5(680777).

Pagliai, G, et al. (2021), “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, British Journal of Nutrition, 125: 308-318.

This article first appeared in Hindu Business Line & I4I.


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